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Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Human Dignity and the Democratic Revolution

Human Dignity and the Democratic Revolution
by Hon David Kilgour
First Biennial Conference of World Forum for Democratization in Asia 15 – 17 September 2005
International Convention Centre
Taipei, Taiwan

Some of you might be asking, “Why a Canadian parliamentarian is talking about Asia?” One reason, perhaps, is that the Asianification of Canada is continuing briskly. About two million of our nationals are of either Chinese or Indian origin; there are others from probably all 42 countries across Asia. In our current House of Commons, we have twelve MPs of family origin on this continent. Many Canadians feel that one of our personal identities among others is Asian; in my own family, for example, three of our children have worked in Asia.

As Secretary of State (Asia – Pacific) for two years until late 2003, it was my pleasure to visit many of your capitals. It’s easy for visitors to notice some of the many things Asians do better than in other regions of our shrunken planet.

Two examples only:

1. Many Asian countries are achieving more education for more people – not just those from prosperous families - than in too many non-Asian ones.
2. Your businesses wisely do not pay their executives like rock stars. I recall reading somewhere that an Asian car manufacturer’s chief executive might be paid up to 15 times what a colleague on the assembly floor receives, whereas in North America or Europe the difference can be far more than a hundred times.

In preparing for this talk, I was re-reading Democracy Is Not Enough by John Scott written in 1960. It lists the per capita income in US dollars and literacy rates for a number of countries a half century ago. I’ve prepared a list for some Asian countries along with the best updates I could find for 2003:

Per Capita Income US$

Literacy Rate Percentage

Mid 1950s


Mid 1950s


Burma (Myanmar)










Sri Lanka










Hong Kong






















$12, 634

























$21, 492





$ 12,725













Mahatma Gandhi probably summed up such data better than anyone:
“Poverty is the worst form of violence.” All governments everywhere, including Canada’s, must still find better ways to reduce poverty for our urban poor, farmers, students, children, artists – for everyone. Sadly, there are more than a few non-elected governments who think that one way to keep down the pressure from their citizens for better governance and human rights is to keep literacy and real family incomes as low as possible.

Human Rights

As you all know, modern human rights emerged only after World War II, largely in response to the conduct of the Axis powers, and included the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, various international covenants, the Helsinki Accords and other regional agreements. Procedures were established to monitor the performance of governments in a major departure from the principle that states could not interfere in each others sovereignty.

The ongoing problem for many victims of human rights abuses is that most UN, ILO and regional conventions are advisory only. Toothless, in short. This must be changed if human dignity is to be respected everywhere in Asia and on every other continent. Many governments with abysmal human rights records are currently able to block censure continuously at the 53-member UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. It appears that many of the same governments this week in New York are blocking UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s proposal for a new Human Rights Council, which would require support from two thirds of the General Assembly for any country to obtain membership on the Council.

“Cultural Relativism”

Terms like “cultural relativism” or “Asian values” still come up in discussion on topics such as human rights. Indeed, President Hu Jintao in Ottawa last week attributed the differences between his government and Canada’s on human rights to culture and history.

In his 1998 book, East and West, former Hong Kong Governor Christopher Patten makes a good argument for universal values:

“Why do you need to be authoritarian to deliver a sensible macroeconomic policy? Which economic modelers can demonstrate a connection between political repression and GDP growth?…What do torturing people, censoring what they can read and write, locking them up without due process, hunting opponents into silence or exile, dispensing crowds with bullets, fiddling electoral systems - what do these things have to do with sensible management of a developing economy, investment in literacy and primary health, encouragement of exporting industries, high savings and investment?... [The ‘Asian values’] argument also conveniently overlooks the extent to which it is also Asians [not just Westerners] who are campaigning for freedom and democracy and being locked up for their pains.”

By the way, a survey on values by the World Value Survey Organization evidently found that the persons surveyed in China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan were even more supportive of democracy than other countries, including the mostly democratic OECD nations.

Patten also refers in his book to Confucius and to Simon Leys’ translation of Analects of Confucius:

“…Leys points out that the greatest writer in modern China, Lu Xun, who died in 1936, argued that the world has primarily coped with geniuses by trying first to suppress them, and then, when that failed, to exalt them. [Ironically, Lu Xun was treated in both ways by the Communist party]. Confucius was largely ignored in his lifetime…and was then placed on a pedestal by Chinese emperors who promoted his ideas as a convenient official cult. Leys notes that ‘imperial Confucianism only extols those statements from the Master that prescribed submission to the established authorities, whereas more assertive notions were conveniently ignored - such as the precepts of social justice, political dissent, and the moral duty for intellectuals to criticize the rulers [even at the risk of their lives] when he was abusing his power, or when he oppressed the people.‘”

Human Rights Across the Taiwan Straight

As you might know, President Hu Jintao visited Ottawa and Toronto last week, where there were demonstrations at virtually every one of his stops. At a joint press conference with Canada’s prime minister Paul Martin in Ottawa, the Chinese leader made in my view three inaccurate comments:

1. On human rights generally, Hu said: “The Chinese government has traditionally attached a great deal of importance to human rights. The progress China has achieved in this area is evident for all to see.”

In fact, human rights have worsened since Hu became Chairman in 2003. His government appears to be even more oppressive than the one of Jiang Zemin, as various independent NGOs, including Amnesty International Canada, continue to point out. Large demonstrations of Taiwanese Canadians, Falun Gong Canadians, Uyghur Canadians, Christians, Buddhists, Muslims, Tibetan Canadians and democrats generally will continue to shadow any Chinese leader until human rights improve demonstrably in China.

2. On Taiwan-Canada relations, Hu said, presumably referring to our proposed Taiwan Affairs Act, “Recently, there have been some noises, discordant noises, on the question of Taiwan coming from within Canada…”

In fact, the proposed act, whose subject matter is currently before the all-party Foreign Affairs Committee of our House of Commons, does not go nearly as far as the Taiwan Relations Act, which was passed by the American Congress in 1979. Sino-American relations have since soared to the point that the US trade deficit with China is in the breathtaking $160 billion a year range [versus $17 billion for Canada, which is equally serious given that our economy is about one tenth the size of the US one]. The Canadian bill will not alter our diplomatic relations with China.

3. On Tibet, President Hu invited His Holiness the Dalai Lama, “to renounce his Tibetan independence proposition.” You will know that the Dalai Lama has long ago abandoned independence for Tibet in favor of a measure of genuine autonomy. Unlike Prime Minister Martin, the Chinese leader also failed to mention at the press conference the recently completed fourth round of talks between China and Tibet. Approximately 160 Canadian MPs in the last parliament sent letters to the Canadian prime minister, asking him to facilitate the talks. Despite the Dalai Lama’s positive overtures, Beijing remains very hard line.

There is much more to say about the state of human dignity across the straight - some of which can be found on my website - but I will only add here the case of Shi Tao, who was sentenced in April in China for ten years imprisonment for passing details of a censorship order to the Asia Democracy Forum and the website Democracy News. There is shame enough for all involved in this case, but I’d be inclined to nominate the internet company allegedly involved for the “Worst Corporate Social Responsibility Award” if it really gave Shi Tao’s name and address to the police.

Multi-Party Democracy

Depending on how you define them, I understand there are now approximately 140 multi-party democracies on the planet, although the elections in some of them appear to be less than fully free and fair at present. This revolution is one of the great achievements by democrats world wide in the last century. No one can really say that one model is more authentic than the others. I’ve often thought that one of the best definitions of democracy is: “In a democracy, citizens own their government - and not visa-versa.” At a forum last week in Ottawa on China, a panelist of origin in China gave this definition an interesting twist: “The CCP swallowed our government in the late 1940s; the government then swallowed the people.” He quickly added that to understand China it is fundamental to separate its mostly wonderful people from the CCP.


Personally, I strongly support the thesis of the American political scientist Benjamin Barber, advanced most effectively in his book, Jihad vs. McWorld, that only the spreading of ‘civic and democratic institutions is likely to offer a way out of the global war between modernity and its aggrieved victims, for democracy responds both to jihad and to McWorld.”

For Barber, McWorld is the universe of manufactured needs, mass consumption, and mass infotainment. Jihad is shorthand for the politics of militant fundamentalism of various kinds. He states the essence of his book this way:

“By extending the compass of democracy…civic globalization can open up opportunities for accountability, participation, [good] governance to those wishing to join the modern world…; by securing cultural diversity, a place for worship, and faith insulated from the shallow orthodoxies of McWorld cultural monism, it can address the anxieties of those who fear secularist materialism and are fiercely committed to preserving their cultural and religious distinctiveness. The outcome of the cruel battle between Jihad and McWorld will depend on the capacity of the moderns to make the world safer for men and women in search of both justice and faith and can be one if democracy is the victor.”

One further thought of Barber’s on McWorld and globalization: “We have globalized crime, the rogue weapons trade, and drugs; we have globalized prostitution and pornography and the trade in women and children made possible by ‘porn tourism,’ …children have been soldiers and victims in raging ethnic and religious wars. Children are the majority of the global cohort that suffers poverty, disease and starvation. Children are our terrorists-to-be because they are obviously not our citizens-to-come.”

I hope that our conference will agree to recommend initiatives by which a host of civic and democratic NGOs across Asia can combat, not terrorism per se, but the social inequalities that terrorists exploit so effectively. Our democracy banners should be Distributional and Global Justice, not retributional justice, and Religious Pluralism, not militant secularism.


In short, we democrats in policy making must constantly think of the two billion people in Asia and elsewhere around the world who live on less than two dollars a day. This probably means, for example, that we are not ‘privatizing fundamentalists’ who want everything out of the hands of government so that the shell which remains can do nothing effective about education, health care, public safety and justice issues, transportation, defense and social justice. One of our most important goals is that children, women and men around the world will all be able to live fulfilled lives and will cease killing themselves in order to murder others.

As the conference theme paper notes, there is a vital relationship between economic development and democracy in terms of human development. Our message here must be clear: sustainable prosperity and human dignity occurs when there is freedom to work gainfully, to choose governments by universal suffrage, to worship, to speak, to write, to relocate, to practise a profession, and the right to independent judges and the rule of law for all.

It is highly appropriate that we are meeting in Taiwan, where in an astonishing period of only 13 years there has been a full transition from martial law during 38 years to a model democracy without bloodshed and without force. Human rights and human dignity are respected throughout this country. As many have said, this country is what China should aspire to be.

Personally, I remain optimistic despite everything that China will join our democracies far sooner than the skeptics think. The continued rise of one of the oldest civilizations on earth, the most populous nation and currently the most dynamic economy is simply not sustainable without adopting the principles we are talking about at this conference.

I wish that all of you, my dear fellow democrats, continued success throughout Asia.
Thank you.

1 comment:

MaKina said...

I agree. I think more people have to become open minded and look at the world as a global village. I believe that a lot of the suffering and injustice going on could be alleviated by just getting the truth,raising one's consciousness and making a little effort...It's time to speak out.